“What sickness could make a person want to get out of bed in the morning to check the box score for last night’s Pirates vs. Brewers game?” This is a variation of a tired rhetorical question for players of what is commonly known as “fantasy baseball,” an old joke about the compelling nature of the game and the strange practices and habits it inculcates. For the uninitiated, fantasy baseball is a game wherein players “sign” actual major league ball players to “manage” over the course of a season, using their accumulated stats to compete against other managers in a “league”. The most (over)used metaphor to describe the game is that of selecting and trading stocks. What is remarkable, however, is that there really are tens of thousands of people doing this, getting off on an RBI double by an unheralded player like Keith Ginter at the end of a 10-2 blowout, or a crucial hold by relief pitcher extraordinaire Brooks Kieschnick. Some may even find themselves rooting against their home team in the hopes that an opposing pitcher will net “their [fantasy] team” one more strikeout.
For these people, increasingly, the fantasy of fantasy baseball is becoming more real than the reality. And not only because they are hopeless statistics geeks, lost in a game of numbers or immured in a game about a game like some character in a trendy metafiction novel. These characterizations simply do not do justice to the enormous amount of people that play fantasy baseball (an unknown amount estimated in the hundreds of thousands), in the same way citing nerd money cannot account for the huge success of The Lord of the Rings movies. These people are, or were, Major League Baseball fans that love the game. But more often than not, they have something else in common. In various ways and to different extents, they feel marginalized by MLB’s audience membership discourse; they no longer feel that the game is produced for them.
In the endless proliferation of chartrooms, bulletin boards, and magazines about fantasy baseball, talk inevitably turns to notions of fandom and discontent with MLB’s preferred reading of audience membership. But why is it that conversations about a player’s injury, or “dollar value”, or an assessment of a trade between fantasy teams, tend to come to questions of greed, mismanagement, and the authenticity of MLB representations among fantasy practitioners? Part of it is simply sports commentary, the fun involved in being an armchair quarterback—but this does not fully explain the resistance to audience membership and MLB’s representation of baseball. I attribute this, in part, to very real and specific reactions to the commodification structure of sports, and MLB in particular.
To be a baseball fan, you are asked to attend games, buy products that signify your team, watch games on TV, and always “root, root, root for the home team”—in short, to spend money. But, increasingly, people are questioning aloud what these things have to do with being a fan of baseball, separate from the dominant version of legitimate fandom expounded by MLB. Couched in all this talk about the greed of the players and the owners, there is also an evident resistance to MLB itself.
On the spectrum of resistance to the league, there are those that view playing fantasy baseball as a supplement to help make the game more watchable, to recuperate their own identity as fans. As “Griswold” from “The Bullpen” bulletin board posts, “Fantasy sports are my addiction (ERRR) hobby (at least that’s what I tell my wife). As bad as the state of sports, as a business instead of a game, is… it is fantasy sports that makes it a little bit easier for us to watch and enjoy.” For others, the resistance is more radical, to the point that they no longer watch the game at all. “Funkley”, on the same board, states “The more roto I play the less I care about ‘real’ baseball. ‘Yada, yada’... just tell me how my players did.” And “T! he Dane” states: “Honestly, the best thing about baseball IS fantasy baseball. The ‘real’ game has been so ruined. that without the fantasy component, baseball would not exist for me at all. It’s sad, really, but these players and owners have killed the goose that laid the golden egg with their greed.”
If it can be said that the production of cultural identities occurs in part through access to popular media (as John Hartley tells us in Uses of Television), it is also clear that identity formation can take the form of a negotiation or resistance to these identities at certain sites (what Hartley termed “DIY citizenship.”) In fact, the audience is never really an audience at all, but a product of a discursive “regime” that creates it. After all, nobody is exclusively an MLB fan—the “audience” itself is more a product to sell to advertisers and other corporate interests. But the point here is textual. There is a clear discursive interpolation involved in being a fan of MLB; and fantasy baseball marks a site of penetration of and resistance to the baseball audience “product” in the active formation of a new kind of fan identity.
I am not claiming that most fantasy players always stand in staunch opposition to MLB; in fact, it is safe to say that on some level almost all fantasy players are fans of major league baseball. But on just what level this fandom exists is what is in question. My assertion is that most fantasy baseball players form their identities as fans appropriate to a feeling of marginalization in the discursive representations of the league, an identity that does not put them on the outside, but on the border, of MLB fandom. In other words, many fantasy baseball players have resisted the interpolations of MLB by questioning their legitimacy as purely consumer identities.
Far from passive consumers of an MLB product, these “fans” have become producers of a different type of baseball that operates largely outside of the league and its official and legitimized brand of baseball. In doing so, they have reinterpreted and reclaimed the grounds of fandom from the ideological constructions and projections of MLB. Indeed, fantasy players have undermined the entire concept of the pennant race and “rooting for the home team” in favor of following the constructs of their fantasy leagues. They have developed a baseball that deconstructs the MLB offering by shifting the focus from the battles of individual teams (with their “greedy” owners) to the dynamics of on-the-field player interaction. Along with this, fantasy players have developed an entire language and system of analysis, called sabermetrics, that utilizes incredibly sophisticated mathematical formulas that make Batting Average and Earned Run Ratios seem like tools unearthed in an arctic ice encasement. Those archaic statistical measures are left instead to ignorant managers, haplessly ignoring would-be good hitters that know how to take a walk.
While sabermetrics and even fantasy leagues in general have a history in complicated baseball simulation games, like Strat-O-Matic, there was a decided break when a group of professors and writers got together in a New York Rotisserie Chicken restaurant and invented “Rotisserie Baseball”. Rotisserie Baseball and its current incarnation, fantasy baseball, served to form small communities where people came together to play, and eventually, create the entire culture formation at issue. These cultural sites crop up all over, especially through independent publishing and Internet sites, localized venues that mark the marginality of the project.
This is not to say, however, that there is not money in the fantasy leagues. While the reach of the sports commodification complex in capitalizing on fantasy sports has been incomplete, (most “serious” fantasy baseball players have continuous leagues with rule permutations not supported by the ESPN site), it is rapidly encroaching. The marketability of fantasy football, a less statistics intensive version of its baseball counterpart, has not gone unnoticed by the commodifying forces in sports. By all accounts, there are now more fantasy football players than baseball players, in no small amount due to successful marketing. Add to this the creation of fantasy golf, fantasy hockey, fant! asy NASCAR, and, yes, fantasy bass fishing, and it becomes clear that the corporate interests in sports are reaching out to bring this niche into the fold.
However, in general, I do not see the same kinds of cultural formations existing relative to these “other” fantasy games. Fantasy baseball is a far greater personal commitment, both in terms of time, and in terms of re-envisioning the sport. Most fantasy football players see their game as simply a supplement to the “real thing”, while some fantasy baseball players are inclined to think that their league is the genuine article, more important than the game itself. As for fantasy bass fishing, it is unlikely at this point that many find it more essential to fishing than actually fishing. Although, I, for one, would welcome any re-envisioning of the Bass Master tournament.
Despite the deep commitments of many players, as fantasy baseball guru Ron Shandler notes, fantasy baseball gets short shrift in mainstream baseball outlets, as ESPN and MLB have done only the bare minimum to appeal to fantasy baseball players. When Harold Reynolds on Baseball Tonight is asked to make a brief comment aimed at fantasy players in a slight concession, you can literally see him wince. Fantasy baseball players seem destined to live on the margins of mainstream sports in a kind of cottage industry. Why is this? Shandler claims that the reason is implicit (but wrongly attributed) associations with gambling; a smart response, but one that is ultimately unconvincing, especially given MLB’s considering Las Vegas as a potential team site. Moreover, it is hard to believe that MLB would not be interested in the money grab that would follow enfranchising fantasy players. It seems to me something else is operating.
Major League Baseball marketing gets a real bad rap from the chattering legions in the mainstream sports media. Really, there is a smarter hook than MLB typically gets credit for—the league naturalizes quite powerfully its own status as baseball qua baseball by appropriating the entire history of Baseball. Rather than existing in the minds of fans as a type of baseball organized in accordance with a certain interpretation of the game, MLB tends to avoid some of the scrutiny leveled at other leagues. This is why criticisms about baseball, for the most part, tend towards criticizing internal corruptions in the league such as greed, or certain deviations from the purity of the league’s past, rather than questions concerning its fidelity to the sport itself. Baseball is as MLB does.
The Designated Hitter Rule, for example, is talked about more for its potential to skew the historical statistics of the League (indeed, of Baseball itself) or its changing of specific game (MLB game) dynamics, than it is in terms of its completely arbitrary relation to the game itself. The National Basketball League, for example, will forever be in a kind of competition with NCAA basketball to determine which is the more “pure” form of the game. NCAA baseball, meanwhile, is seen as at best a supplement and at worst a forgettable perversion of MLB.
MLB controls the history and thus the future of baseball. It is the only privately run organization given government exemption from anti-trust laws, further securing the future of its “authenticity”. It is a kind of public good. Its name and identity as baseball is to remain unchallenged; which is in part why, even as owners lie about losing money, the books will remain closed. If MLB managers are losing money, conventional wisdom dictates, it must be because baseball itself is declining in popularity, not because the owners are cooking the books or mismanaging money. There is not supposed to be room for interpretation here.
This might go some way to explaining why MLB has done so little in terms of shifting its idea of audience to legitimize the fantasy baseball crowd, its illegitimate child. What makes fantasy baseball so successful, in some ways at least, is its oppositional reading of the league—the idea that the fan gets to control the grounds of baseball fandom. To incorporate fantasy baseball into MLB is, on some level, to undermine the system of MLB.
For example, the ballpark itself is simply not set up for giving fantasy players the information of most value to them. Even the breaking news on the Jumbotron is necessarily limited by the hugeness of the format. So it seems the league does not have a successful solution that would draw the potential money fantasy sports represents while maintaining the crucial “purity” of its offering. Further, MLB may well have its doubts, given this oppositional reading of the game, that catering to these fans will have a long term pay-off.
This is not meant as a conspiracy theory. Rather, it is the subtle operation of two different systems of meaning that become, in practice, incompatible with each other. Part of the success of MLB is its cohesive and comprehensive baseball ideology, and catering to fantasy baseball would undermine this ideology. To be a MLB fan means to root for the home team, follow the pennant race, and appreciate history. If you want to stand up and cheer at the game (or better, while following it for free on the Internet) for that RBI double Keith Ginter just hit against your home team, you are not playing by the rules. You will get weird looks from indoctrinated fans a! nd you will not get a graphic on the scoreboard or Jumbotron. So for now, fantasy baseball communities, along with their values and insights, will remain relegated to cheesy Internet sites and third-rate publications. This is probably for the best though, because if the managers catch up with what the fantasy players know about their players and suddenly become competent, fantasy players may actually have to start rooting for their home teams again.